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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Linda Rising on Thinking about Thinking and the Agile Mindset

Linda Rising on Thinking about Thinking and the Agile Mindset


1. Good day, this is Shane Hastie, we are here at QCon London with Linda Rising

It’s wonderful to be here; we can look out and see Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, it’s absolutely wonderful.


2. It is indeed. Linda, you and I have met each other a few times; I suspect there is some of our audience who haven’t come across you and your work, would you briefly introduce yourself?

Well my name is Linda Rising and right now I live in Nashville Tennessee, my husband retired three years ago and we moved from Phoenix Arizona. I’m an independent consultant and I mostly talk. These days I talk about how your brain works, about retrospectives, the change process and Agile.


3. You gave a really inspiring talk a couple of years ago at one of the Agile Conferences on the Agile Mindset. You are still working in that space, could you tell us a little bit about that please?

You know there are some talks I give that I feel will be a one off, I will give this talk, I spend a fair amount of time on it and I feel it’s a little edgy and I’m not sure how people will receive it and I think perhaps I’ll never give it again. And of all the talks that falls into that category, it has been the case, especially for that one that I have giving that talk dozens of times. So I’m not very good at predicting how talks will go, so that one really surprised me.

It was about research that it’s been around for decades and when I discovered it I thought I’m the only one who doesn’t know about this and perhaps others are familiar with it but I’ll make the connection to Agile Development. And the research is about the fact that we hold either one of two mindsets toward intelligence talent or ability. We either believe that you are born with it, you have it, it’s a natural talent for you, you are a genius at it or not, that is called the Fix Mindset. You are a set of capabilities that appear at birth and that defines you and there is really not much that you can do to change that. So in contrast the Agile Mindset believes that well, of course, we have a set of capabilities that we had at birth, but we can, if we are determined and if we work hard, we can improve all of those, we can all be better at anything we chose, that it’s not about what we were stuck with at birth.

Well that is Agile and it’s very different from the Fixed Mindset in that, that binary setting yes or no determines how we feel about everything, not only how we feel about our own abilities but how we feel about others and their abilities. We know that we are equipped to stereotype, we judge others instantly, you are tall I’m short, you are from outside of US, I’m an American, what color are we, what the religion and on the basis of that we make a cascade of other decisions on that very quick intuitive labeling. So we know that if you hold a Fix Mindset, those stereotypes are pretty firm and we are really reluctant to change them. So if we are Agile we are a little more open, we want to believe that everyone can change of that is truly what we believe, so we are not so quick to judge others or to hold on to that judgment, so that Mindset effects not only how we see our own progress through the world but what path we allow for others and how well we collaborate and how open we are to listening and learning from others. It effects our teams, it effects our organizations, countries can have Mindsets, so it turns out to have wide impact, it’s pretty important.

Shane: As a father of daughters, one of the things that I recall very clearly from sitting in on that talk with your discussion about the Bright Little Girls.

I don’t know how many times I’ve been on some many panels, workshops, asked to write, asked to comment about the problem of why don’t we have more women in IT. Now it’s a cultural thing, not all cultures discriminate against women in scientific or technical areas but certainly in the US we do and it’s been the case that that discrimination has existed as long as I’ve been in the field. So I’ve been trying to understand that and what can we do to encourage those Bright Little Girls and this research clearly shows that Bright Little Girls who are so good initially in school at understanding what their teachers want, what their parents want and they are told constantly: “Oh you are so smart, you did such a good job on this, you are so pretty, you are so perfect”. They develop as a result of all of that praise a very Fix Mindset and what they become it’s closed to any chance of perhaps learning, perhaps risking failure, showing that they might not be perfect, so when the hard stuff comes along in schools, about Junior High, they begin to move away from Science and Math into things that are little easier where they do have some natural ability and so they avoid all of those technical fields where we need their contribution. Studies have shown that Bright Little Girls have the most Fixed Mindset on the planet.


4. How do we help those Bright Little Girls or maybe not make the Fix Mindset, how do we..?

We could look at what happens with Bright Little Boys and the answer there is Bright Little Boys do not come out of the womb knowing how to communicate, they have almost no empathy and they are told constantly: “Why can’t you sit still, why can’t you be quite, why can’t you pay attention, why can’t you listen, why can’t you be more like your sister?” So when the hard stuff comes along and they don’t succeed immediately they struggle, but they are used to that, that is the way they live. So we need to get Bright Little Girls used to challenges, maybe failures, to tell them no they are not perfect, this is a good job, you must have worked hard, so praise the process, don’t praise ability, praise strategies, praise the thinking process, tell me how you created this beautiful picture, wrote this story; oh - you must have practice a lot on you piano recital it was very good I could tell you’ve been working hard. And say that it’s ok to fail. So your teacher gave you a B minus, that a chance for you to learn something, let’s look at this, exam or story or paper whatever it is, let’s see what we can learn from it, it’s a chance to learn; so instead of taking on the identity of failure which is what Bright Little Girls do, when they don’t do well they say: “I failed, I must be not very good at this”.

Shane: And they give up.

And they give up, it’s called Learned Helplessness, when people fail and they say:”I must not be able to do it”. What we want is for them is to be resilient; to embrace failure, that is the motto of Agile Development, fail early, fail often, use it as a learning opportunity, there are a lot of Agile Contributors who have a failure motto that they put on in front of their teams saying this is how we learn, so fail early, fail fast, fail constantly, that is how we learn, so Little Girls need to adopt that Agile Mindset.

Shane: Thank you, when we were chatting earlier you mention you are thinking a lot at the moment about thinking.

Indeed, I rail on about Software Development and the problem that we face in not doing real experiments, we are not very scientific. When we choose for instance to use Agile Development, I always ask my students or people in the talk, “How did you happen to do that, how did you choose to do Agile Development, did you perhaps look at all of the Scientific randomized controlled double blind studies that had been done that show clearly that Agile Development is better than whatever your current process is, did you look at all of those studies” and the honest responders say: “Well no, I didn’t” and I say “thank you for being honest” because there are not any, there are no randomized control double blind studies; so how do we make a decision about what Programming Language, what process, what direction to head and the answer is and has been for decades - stories. We heard that, that team over there they are using Agile and they say that customers are happier, that are able to reduce defects, that they are whatever, and we hear that and we think: “Perhaps that could work for us” and then we know that if you are already leaning in that direction and you do anything, you are pretty likely to succeed just because you believe in it. It’s called the Placebo Effect from drug studies where we know that even those subjects who are taking a Placebo drug get better. So if you believe in something and that is how we run our business on stories and faith and belief, it’s about selling an idea based on nothing more than a good story. So the best we can hope for because I don’t see that will ever do those randomized Double Blind Controlled Studies.

Shane: It would be difficult.

It would be very difficult and expensive, is to look at other domains where they do scientific, this is science after all, where they are scientific and see what my apply to the way we work, and right now the area that is growing the fastest, that has the most potential to help us is the enormous amount of progress been made in Cognitive Neuroscience, the study of the brain and how it works. There is a lot of information that could help us to a better job. Well the problem with that is we can’t keep up with our own domain, we don’t have time, did you pass by that enormous stack of books that is on the floor below us and wow, it’s 40% off, what a deal, but suppose we bought them all, now how we are going to have time to read all of that, and what about all the podcasts, what about all the talks; and this conference is putting all of the videos from all the presentations, how we are going to have time, I mean the conference itself is three days. If we listen to all the talks, how many tracks are there, 5 tracks, 3 days, we could spend a lot of time just hearing all the presentations from this one conference, how can we keep up?

We can’t, so I have taken it upon myself to try to keep up a little bit with Cognitive Neuroscience and I’ve filtered, I know you are interested in filters, I can filter since I can bridge the two fields and I can see things that might be very helpful for people in software at any level and I can do a little bit of translating and realize that not everyone needs to read those studies, we need to know that the studies were done, what we need is the impact and a bit of translation so that we can take that and use it, so now I do that. That’s what I did with the Agile Mindset, I found a research, I did a little bit of reporting on the studies and I translated it to how that would fit your conversation with a child, your conversation with a colleague, your conversation with yourself.


5. And what are some of the key things you are seeing in the field of thinking?

Well the very first, in fact is what I start with, in the tutorial I do on thinking is to not do what we are all doing now: we are all sitting, so we had become not a nation, a globe, a people who sit all day and not only that we sit, we sit with our heads down, we’re staring at the computer screen, maybe 2 or 3 computer screens and we stare in a focused fixed manner not blinking. But we are hard wired to stand, we are hard wired to move, we are hard wired to look around, to scan the horizon, we do our best thinking when our heads are up, so I translate a lot of that research into suggestions for people who say: “But Linda this is my job, I must sit staring”, after all that is what I do, I solve problems. Sso we’ve become enamored of that as the best way to think, the best way to solve problems. So now there are companies that make treadmill desks, standing desks, movable holders of various kinds for the various laptops or computer screens, so we can move those up and down and that would allow us at least to spend part of our day not sitting; it’s not about exercise, that is a different issue, it’s about not sitting and it’s about not having your head down. So if you can’t afford a treadmill desk or a stand up desk, you can at least periodically stand up and raise your head, look around especially here, you have a wonderful view but unfortunately most people spend their days in cubicles with no view, so I ask them to pretend there is a beautiful view, pretend you have a window, so raise your eyes look toward the horizon would be and scan. So there is plenty of evidences based research that shows just standing and scanning improves your ability to come up with creative ideas. So just do that periodically, take a few minutes stand up, look around, raise your eyes toward where the horizon would be. Now, if you can walk, if you can go outside, if you can see a real tree even better, so there are variety of little tips and things that are based around, the most important thinking tip I gave these days which is “Move it!”.

Shane: Fascinating because all of our industry is about sitting still and staring.

It’s about sitting, what are we doing in this conference? I should be careful here, we are sitting, you go into a room, what is the first thing you do? Find a seat, sit down, so at least for the people who are in my tutorial I notice by the end of the day, they are moving to the outside of the room, I say: “You don’t have to sit, you don’t bother others if you just move to the side of the room or go to the back as long as you are not in front of someone, why would they care whether you move”. At a meeting you don’t have to sit, you could stand, just move off to the side, out of the way so now I can see, when I go into a room there are a few people standing along the edge, some of the people who are in my class or who have been in previous classes and I always go up to them and I say: “I’m here with you”.

Shane: Because it’s the cultural pressure…

Yes, if you get up and move around people might think that there is something unusual, why is she standing, why is she…., or people at my age want to give you their seat, “Here sit down”, they think you couldn’t find an empty seat, “So please sit down”, and I always said: “It’s ok, I’m alright standing”. So here a recent paper that was just published, that shows even for people who do exercise and that is another issue and another problem, but even for people who exercise the number of hours you sit on average each day is correlated with your early demise; the longer you sit the sooner you die. So that should be something of an incentive, we need to stand up, just stand up.

Shane: Wow interesting stuff. Now in your talk today which will be recorded but just perhaps the advance notice, you are talking myths about change.

Change myths, well myths of course support our culture, it’s a feedback loop, the myths support the culture are supported by the culture and it’s very hard to step outside that, we are all part of a culture of some sort, not only the cultures in our countries but the cultures in our organizations, individual teams have cultures. “Here is how we do things!”and that defines our culture and along with that goes some unspoken, in most cases, things that we all believe and many of those things are never examined and we just assume that because we hold them either we as individuals, we as a team, that is what everyone else believes as well, we don’t talk about it because we have that very strong assumption. So the first one is that we believe in goodness, it’s called the Just World Hypothesis, justice will be done. Now that is relative of course, justice for me might not be justice for you. What was interesting on Monday, my tutorial was within sight of Westminster Abbey and on that day they were holding a memorial service for Nelson Mandela. So when you think about social justice and you think of his life and what he taught us about justice, that you can see, yes his ideas changed others ideas because they didn’t all hold the same idea of justice. So we all have it the idea of a just world even though our ideas of justice. So that means that we think that our idea’s goodness will triumph, I have a good idea, so we start up believe in a Programming Language, in a process, I believe in Agile, I think it’s a good, we often use that term, I think it’s a good, so that ties into goodness, therefore because it’s good it should win, it should triumph, good triumphs over evil does it, doesn’t it?

Shane: Sometimes.

And so we don’t work as hard often or we don’t do many things as we should do because we have bought into the myth of goodness. That’s definitely one of the myths that we also subscribe to in our own way. Do you want another one? Since we are smart people, we also believe that we are logical, we make decisions logically. Therefore if I explain my idea – I just outline for you – just as I would in a geometric prove I give you the costs and the benefits and I show you that will benefit over all by adopting this idea that since you are logical, rational person, that is all I need to do. Clearly since we are both intelligent, logical and rational we can be an examiner of the truth in a sense, that is truth, isn’t it? It’s true that here are the benefits of if there were evidence, some scientific evidence, I could present that. You’d think that most of us would know our history and could look back on thehistory of science to see scientific experiments that clearly showed some result that was rejected by the scientific community, sometimes for thousands of years but we all believe in that myth, we subscribe to it, the myth of rationality.

Shane: Again fascinating stuff, I’m looking forward to the talk, to the whole talk which will be available on InfoQ as well. Linda thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today, it’s been really great to see you and enjoy the rest of the conference!

Thank you for inviting me Shane!

Apr 30, 2014